Elvis Costello has been down this path before, even if this one offers a style like nothing he's ever released.
Never mind that Bacharach has been lurking in every corner of his music since Imperial Bedroom. (Only 1986's countrified King of America could hide from him.) The kinship, then, between these alternately lyrical and melodic geniuses runs deep. This album (in stores Tuesday), after all, is from the same snotty punk who once crooned "My Funny Valentine" between sneering takes of "This Year's Girl," and from the same master craftsman whose career has seen a resurgence, thanks to modern-rock fans.
But it's really Costello's project, and he's restless. He hasn't been the Angry Young Man of rock since 1982, really, and after a period of not knowing which hat of maturity to wear, he decided to don them all. So he records with the Brodsky Quartet and only half-succeeds. So he duets with Bill Frisell (this new album's most obvious precursor) and makes "Gigi" sound ethereal and atmospheric. So he reunites with the Attractions to make a very adult pop record that's better than anyone had a right to expect.
So now he's done 12 songs with the King of Cool. And perhaps not surprisingly, it's one of the best albums he's ever made — a wrenching, heartbreaking song cycle that introduces our lovesick hero doubting himself "In the Darkest Place," falling out with his girl (again and again and again) and discovering that "This House is Empty Now" before moving on to something greater. (Though, ironically, he and this new flame are "Such Unlikely Lovers" they dance to a Steely Dan groove, not a "Say a Little Prayer" return).
It's all bittersweetness and hopeful bliss with a touch of hyper-reality: "I'm not saying there will be violins," he sings, "but don't be surprised when they appear." (And then they do.)
But that's only the first half. The rest is merely brilliant, and four of the remaining six tunes are among the most anguished he has recorded in years. Costello's character begs ("if you can't be my lover, be my thief"), then gets sarcastic over his problems ("The Long Division").
And then it gets truly melodramatic: The title track (with strings courtesy of Johnny Mandel) is sorrow worthy of Ol' Blue Eyes singing for only the lonely. "The Sweetest Punch" has some of the best zingers Costello has penned in ages. "What's Her Name Today?" is a male confession that reverberates with generations of dissatisfaction, and the previously released "God Give Me Strength," the most Bacharach-esque number amid an hour of them, is the sort of pain Costello used to call tears before bedtime. "I might as well wipe her from my memory," he decides.
Sound heavy? Yeah, it is. It's also marvelously warm and lush, with Bacharach composing for and conducting a 24-piece pop orchestra in deliciously old-fashioned ways, while a trio of female backing vocalists adds soulfulness where Costello has none.
The lone drawback (and it's obvious) is that Costello simply cannot sing everything he and Bacharach have written. He's overly ambitious and doesn't have the range to pull off every last detail. (Think of what a major vocalist could do with this, but then, Sinatra's dead and Dionne Warwick just wouldn't get it.)
Still, the songs seem so personal to Costello, so emotionally gripping (hence their wordiness), that his misplaced vocal enthusiasm is forgivable. Hear this for what it is — brilliant songs in an intelligent context — not what it could be. Perfection would only ruin the mood. A somber masterpiece.